What are you carrying with you into the New Year?
By Mandy Flint: Art Therapist & Social Worker for Thrive Counselling & Art Therapy
Left: Artwork by Katharina Rapp "And Life Goes On". www.rappland.com
Earlier this year I had the privilege of sitting down and creating some art with 2 of my wonderfully talented art therapy colleagues Jackie Reineke from Artwell and Julia Nichols from A Magic Life, as part of our monthly art therapy gatherings. These gatherings were a welcomed ritual and provided not only opportunities to share new art therapy techniques but also offered a source of support and sisterhood which I will always cherish :o).
For this particular session, it was my turn to lead the process and so I chose to do an art technique which basically required decorating an old handbag.
My reason for choosing this activity was that at the time I was feeling somewhat overwhelmed. I was, among other things, studying full time, working a very demanding job, raising two teenagers and running a household. I was tired and feeling like I just wanted to chuck it all in.
The process of decorating an old handbag was very symbolic to me. It represented how much I carry around with me on a day to day basis. All those daily tasks, to do lists, demands and expectations that come with being someone who frequently takes on too much.
At the end of that session I felt quite satisfied that I had done a wonderful job of decorating the outside of my bag. It seemed to represent much of what I was feeling at that time; being way too busy, not having enough hours in the day, constantly being on the move and needing to find some balance and ways to re-energise myself… What it also revealed to me was that I had only just scratched the surface as I hadn’t even begun to explore what I was carrying inside...
Almost a year later, with my study completed, no job on the horizon and for the first time in my adult life, having some time to really look at myself and my life, I came back to this bag to take a peek inside.
This was by no means a small feat! As I began the second stage of this art process I realised just how much was actually inside that bag. In fact it was overflowing with remnants of the past, outdated beliefs and past hurts that had me carrying fear, anxiety, self-doubt, shame and guilt. These remnants have shaped who I am today in many positive ways, but hanging on to them has also created patterns that are self-destructive and weighing me down. These patterns included being a people pleaser and at times a doormat, taking on everyone else’s troubles – being the rescuer and more importantly, neglecting myself.
Over time I had taken on a heavy load of opinions, beliefs and labels and loaded them up into my bag carrying them around with me, everywhere I went. What was apparent to me as I began to rummage through this bag was that most of what was in there wasn’t even mine! It was the voices, problems and insecurities of others that I had taken on board, like a good little girl.
The more I looked inside the bag, the deeper it went, rather like Mary Poppins magic satchel. It began to feel a bit overwhelming, almost to the point where I wanted to tip the contents of the bag out onto the floor so I could see it all in full view. I refrained from doing this though, as knew that if I did, I wouldn’t know where to begin to sort it all out.
Taking a deep breath and regathering my thoughts, I stood back from the bag and noticed that I was only seeing the most overwhelming parts, the darkness. I hadn’t even looked for any light inside... It’s easy when you start digging down deep to find the perceived ‘bad’ parts of ourselves, I think we are all well trained in doing that. It’s a lot harder to see the positives, to remind ourselves that there will also be light. To make a concerted effort to find our light and to claim it!
As I searched a little harder, I found wisdom, grace, self-compassion and inner strength. These qualities had been there all along, just buried down deep under all the other baggage.
It was in searching for the light that I started to believe I could take some of my power back and choose what contents I wanted to be in that bag. It was time to throw out the most destructive parts – shame and guilt. Downsize my fear and anxiety, which although will always be there, are deserving of way less power. Most importantly to strengthen and build up that which brings me back to my authentic self - grace, wisdom, self-nurturance, love and compassion.
This process was not done in one session, it has taken many and continues to be an ongoing process…
In allowing the time to work with this process, I made some wonderful self-discoveries… some of these things I already knew, but pushed aside in order to maintain what I thought were important relationships and of course for self preservation. I hope you find these inner thrivings as useful as I have...
How much of what you're carrying belongs to other people?
It’s virtually impossible to not be affected by other people’s opinions or actions. But when we store them inside and carry them around with us, they get heavier and heavier and leaves less room for what’s more important - our own thoughts, feelings and opinions, our own identity, values and humanness! When we ignore our authentic self, we deny ourselves a voice. This can then manifest itself in behaviours such as people pleasing, not being able to say no, or as depression, anxiety and/or anger.
Once we establish what belongs to other people, we then have a choice in how we manage it. We can hold it for as little or as long as we need to, then we can dispose of it, downsize it, even give it back to its rightful owner! A word of caution though, some people may not be very receptive in receiving these burdens back and in fact it may create more distress for you. Be sure to think it through first and always look after yourself through this process, seeking support to ensure it’s the right choice for you.
It’s easier to work on the outside and a lot harder to face what’s going on inside…
I think we can all relate to this. We often do a patch up job on the outside as it’s quick and easy. We keep repairing the handle so our bag can hold more and more weight. We sew up the holes and even carry it around with a broken zip. We also redecorate our bag from time to time so it looks a bit nicer on the outside and hides what we don’t want to face. Unfortunately, the bag will eventually break and the contents will come spilling out unless we start to address what’s weighing us down.
If you want to change the contents of your bag, start small and safe…
Whilst this process can be healing and uplifting, it can also be overwhelming and anxiety provoking. To really look inside and clean out the heavy weights, I would suggest starting with what’s manageable and go from there.
Remember your physical and emotional safety is paramount here. For some, the contents may be too distressing to explore, so in that case don’t start this process unless you have supports in place, whether they be a qualified art therapist, psychologist, counsellor or a trusted friend or family member who agrees to support you on this journey.
Make a decision from here on in, that all new contents will be reviewed before entering your Bag!
As a woman and as a self-proclaimed people pleaser, it’s easy to take on other people’s baggage without even giving it a thought. We do it because we want to be nice, supportive, helpful, caring, but we often do it at our own expense. There is nothing wrong with supporting others in need, but for your own wellbeing, make a conscious decision to really review what is worthy of you carrying and what isn’t. People will gladly dump their baggage on you, but you have a choice. You can stand back and really look at what they are offloading onto you, decide how long you might hold it for, what it costs you to hang on to it. Most importantly, what benefit you will gain by releasing it.
Creating small letting go rituals is a great way to release baggage that isn’t yours. Click this link for a Letting Go ritual:
Is it time to buy a smaller bag?
You’ve reviewed the contents of your bag, you may have even thrown out some baggage and downsized others. You probably feel a little lighter for doing so and that is wonderful. Now that you have done that, have you created space again for more baggage? If you have created space, maybe its time to buy a smaller bag. By having a smaller bag you are committing to yourself and your wellbeing. You are telling the world, ‘hey, this is all I am carrying with me now’, go and get your own bag!
Who says we have to carry around our bag all the time?
Make a pact with yourself for the New Year that you will set down times in your diary where you leave your bag outside the door, or in a locked cupboard and just be. Be with no demands, no expectations, no labels. Give yourself some time to stretch out those burdened shoulders, run a bubble bath, meditate, sleep, create, dance, read. In setting aside time without your bag weighing you down, you will gain greater strength to manage its contents and make the positive changes you need for your own wellbeing.
Make it a priority to clean out the contents of your bag on a regular basis…
The New Year provides a great foundation for cleaning out the old and bringing in the new. But by the time we get to December next year it’s likely that you’ve filled your bag up again, your shoulders are sore and you’re ready to buckle. Cleaning out the contents of your bag on a regular basis is like doing maintenance on your car. The more regularly you do it, the less likely you are going to have breakdowns or difficulties in the future. Again come up with a few dates in your diary where you set aside time to re-evaluate your life, and what’s weighing you down. What do you need to let go of, modify, change? The more you do this, the more strength and energy you will have to face any challenges ahead.
Cleaning out your bag can take many forms…
The bag in this story is a metaphor for what you may be carrying in your life. How you let go and reduce the burdens that weigh you down, can take many forms. Here are a few practical ways you can lighten the load…
Literally clean out your closet! Decluttering your home can be a great way to reduce the chaos and create space in your life for more positive things. Letting go of old items and things we don’t need can be very symbolic.
Let go of dysfunctional and toxic relationships: Some are easier to let go of than others, but to really begin to lighten the contents of your bag, there may be relationships that need to go in order for you to look after yourself.
Put some firm boundaries in place: Decide what is and isn’t negotiable in your relationships with others, your work and your life in general. If you are finding that you feel constantly exhausted and that most of your relationships are one sided, then it is the perfect time to think about putting some boundaries in place to look after yourself.
Saying no when you mean it can be difficult, so maybe start small. Instead of saying ‘yes’ automatically to every request you get, maybe say ‘I will think about it’, or ‘I’m not sure at this stage, I’ll get back to you’. Drawing a visual picture of your boundaries, what you are willing to do for people and what you are not, is a really useful way to give yourself a foundation for which to build strong boundaries with people who take advantage of your generosity and kindness.
Develop your own personal mantra: No one else has to know what it is, but it can be anything that helps to remind you in vulnerable times what you stand for and what you will and won’t accept. It could be something as simple as “I deserve better than this” or “I will only take on what I can manage at this time”. It’s up to you…
Keep a journal of your progress and setbacks: A journal is a great way not only to get your thoughts and feelings out on paper but to track how you are going. Recording your achievements helps you to recognise how well you are doing, even if it’s only small steps. Recording any setbacks give you the opportunity to reflect on how you could do things differently next time. Keep a journal for a year, and when you read back over it, you will more than likely be surprised at just how far you have come.
Cleaning out your bag should be a work in progress…
The most important aspect of cleaning out the heavy contents of your bag is to be gentle on yourself in the process. Some baggage will be harder to let go of than others, some will be resistant and some just way too painful to even contemplate looking at, let alone touch. This process provides an opportunity to really look at the heavy loads we place on ourselves, so don’t add on another one by expecting that you will have your bag all sorted by a specific date.
Remember, do what feels safe and manageable and congratulate yourself along the way for every small change you make.
Best wishes on your creative journey and happy 2015!
For a guide on how to do this activity, go to:
Disclaimer: Thrive Counselling and Art Therapy shares this blog to provide insight and awareness around day to day life issues and accepts no responsibility for actions taken, or any outcomes as a result of the information provided. Thrive Counselling and Art Therapy advises that any therapeutic art activity be done with caution and back up support either via professional help, or a trusted family member or friend. Thrive Counselling and Art Therapy highly recommends the guidance and support of a trained art therapist or psychotherapist when exploring issues of a distressing or traumatic nature.
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